Necessary Magic

Blooming like a cactus

I got a great piece of advice when my infant daughter's "four month sleep regression" felt like it was ruining my life. I had written one of those desperate 3 am parenting posts you find in family Facebook groups, the kind where parents ask total strangers how high a fever needs to be to schlep your baby into the emergency room, or whether this rash looks like bed bugs, or how to win a nasty custody battle. My post was a plea for advice about how to get my kid sleeping and stop the daily hemorrhaging of my sanity. A few people offered concrete tips on bedtime routines and white noise machines, but the gem that stuck out was an acquaintance who said the only way she got through was to "surrender, accept and lower my expectations."

This became my parenting mantra for several months. I'm an ambitious person, but keeping an infant alive brought me to my knees and required me to get a lot less done, give up control and accept that I was on the kind of deeply human and tedious journey people don't write about enough because it isn't sexy or spectacular. It required me to go to bed by 9 pm, relinquish my social life and take a lot of short, shitty naps when I would rather have been out in the world or in my studio. I kept thinking of something a friend told me years ago about getting through an emotional breakdown—sometimes you can thrive and bloom like a flower, but sometimes you just have to survive like a cactus.

I love the extravagance of flowers, but I was in full cactus mode—spines and all. I was not so fun to be around. My wife suffered.

Like all things, this season passed. Eventually, the baby and I slept again, and I did in fact leave the house, resume my friendships and return to creating beautiful things and getting involved in too many projects. Cacti have some pretty gorgeous flowers when the time is right.

But now, of course, the world is going to hell. Ok, it's been going to hell for quite a while, but I was too sleep-deprived to pay close attention for few months there. Now that I'm awake and the Trumpocalypse is in full swing, while the bushfires burn in Australia and the glaciers melt, I find myself revisiting and challenging that mantra: surrender, accept and lower my expectations.

What does it mean to surrender to the fact that I don't know if our planet will be livable by the time our daughter is an adult? Am I supposed to accept that we have an incredibly dangerous climate-denying rapist in the White House and a bunch of spineless sycophants in the Senate? What do we resist, and what do we accept? And how do we resist when it's so hard to participate? When organizing meetings don't offer childcare and usually happen after bedtime? When our bodies are so worn out from birth and caretaking that we want to collapse by dinner? How do we be part of movements for change when we are in cactus mode? Do we wait for another season? How many more seasons do we have left?

A few weeks ago I responded to one of those desperate 3 am Facebook posts by another parent, a mother who was trying to accept the fact that most of her New Year's resolutions were not going to happen this year (because toddlers), and I responded:

"Yeah, there's all these things I want to do tomorrow and this year and then there's my kid who suddenly appears to be coming down with a cold and the only thing she'll eat when sick is breast milk from the boob, so I will probably be home all day with her tomorrow getting 'nothing' done except keeping us both alive—and that's a lot."

It's a lot. But I really want to know, is it enough? What does it mean to keep us both alive on the daily, and what can I do to be part of keeping us alive in the long term, on this planet in such crisis? My wife and I pass the toddler back and forth like a baton in a relay race so we can do things like show up to plan an action, finish writing a column or attend an open mic. We sneak peeks at the news when we're on the toilet and try to have adult conversations about something other than diapers and daycare a few times a week. She's getting involved with groups like our local Extinction Rebellion chapter and I help activists heal their trauma. Is that enough? What does enough mean at this moment in history? When is it enough to be a cactus, and when is it necessary to bloom?

Necessary Magic is a semi-regular column wherein writer and artist Jacks McNamara explores queer issues, liberatory politics, magical creatures and other relevant topics.

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